Feb 24 2010
I make no secret about being a privacy advocate, however many people misunderstand what I’m against when I talk about our government spying on us. I firmly believe that having the ability to monitor communications, search people’s houses and generally stick their noses in anywhere are all abilities that local and federal law enforcement agencies need to have. But there’s one caveat I believe must be in place: for any sort of monitoring and spying there has to be oversight by a third party and a way to redress problems when someone abuses this power. This oversight is one of the primary reasons cops have to go to judges to get a search warrant and we have many of the freedoms we do in the US. Without oversight, we’d descend into a police state that matches the worst of our criticisms against countries such as China and Iran. This is a lesson the administrators at the the Lower Merion School District forgot in their rush to use camera’s on student laptops to spy on the kids and prove wrong-doing that may or may not have been there.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last week, you know about this case; quick recap is that a Vice Principal used a picture captured using LANRev on school provided laptops to accuse a student of taking drugs. This prompted a class action suit and a potential criminal investigation into the district’s use of LANRev to illegally spy on students. There’s a lot of damning evidence available on the Internet and it’s looking likely that a number of people will be facing criminal charges. And it’s all because these people believed they were doing the right thing in tracking their laptops and their students without some form of oversight to tell them they were being complete and utter idiots.
Absolute Software, the makers of LANRev, understand that giving customers unrestricted access to spy using their computers is a major problem; they require that a police report be filed prior to the spying capabilities of their other, similar products such as LoJack are activated. First of all, this creates the oversight advocates such as I crave. Not too many people are going to report a laptop stolen so they can spy on their significant other. Secondly it creates a paper trail that lays out when and why the spying capabilities were activated. Even after these capabilities are up and running, it’s under the control of Absolute, not the end user. In their own words this prevents “potential vigilantism” and other abuses of power.
If what the families in the Lower Merion School District are claiming is true, and it appears more and more likely it is, then folks like the Vice Principal at Harrington High are definitely vigilantes, someone who illegally tries to mete out punishment to a criminal. There’s a reason we have due process and the administrators of LMSD forgot all of them in their fervor to catch students doing things they shouldn’t at home. They also forgot that the responsibility of schools and teachers is to teach, not law enforcement. If they truly believed there was wrong doing going on, the police should have been called in and proper procedures should have been followed. There’s still a good probability that using LANRev without a search warrant would have been considered an invasion of privacy, but if it was done with police involvement, there’s a lot lower chance they’d be in the hot water they’re in now. And maybe someone with a little knowledge of the law would have said, “Hey, that’s one monumentally stupid idea you’ve got there.”